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Television

The Robotman’s Fatherhood

“We’re only making plans for Nigel/

He has his future in a British steel/

We’re only making plans for Nigel/

Nigel’s whole future is as good as sealed”

-XTC

They tell you a lot of stuff changes when you have a kid.

It’s hacky. Obviously bullshit most of the time, but it doesn’t make it any less true. Your world both shrinks and explodes outward. As Matt Fraction plaintively wrote, it’s as if your heart is now able to run around outside of your body. It’s an irrevocable change. But one that you get to face together. It’s just part of the cycle.

What they DON’T really tell you, though, is how the way you WATCH stuff changes. How you bristle now at the mere hint of violence against a child. How all too real a loss in the narrative can hit you now. How tactile that all is now, even on a screen and in the most overwrought of circumstances. After my son was born, I tried to watch that movie, Patriot’s Day, about the Boston Bombings? And ended up unable to finish it on the day simply because it had about a half a second shot of a toddler with a touch of EFX makeup on, screaming.

Diane Guerrero and Riley Shanahan as Crazy Jane and Cliff Steele in Doom Patrol (S01E01 ”Pilot”) / Source: HBO Max

Now, is that a GOOD movie? Absolutely not (though Kevin Bacon is quite good in it), but you get what I am scratching at here. How it just isn’t “a movie” sometimes when someone of about that same age is building some LEGO in front of you. It just HAPPENS one day, and you are somewhat forced to reorient yourself in terms of what you can and can’t see on-screen now.

This brings me, in a very roundabout way, to Cliff Steele. The Doom Patrol’s Robotman. One of my personal favorite Patrollers and someone who got to “live” through this very arc throughout the still-ongoing run of HBO Max’s Doom Patrol.

Someone who had grand plans for himself and his family. And fucked them up every possible way he could. And it only took him and said family “dying” (in the way that anybody in comics can really “die”) to make him make good. The jury is still out on how successful he’s been, but the change came all the same. That’s what really counts.

Now, just to clarify, I don’t think the show, nor should we think of Cliff as necessarily a “good” father. Though soulfully performed by Brendan Frasier and Riley Shanahan, who physically inhabits the Robotman prosthetic onset, the show, and its writers have no intention of allowing Cliff off the hook. In the opening season, we are provided scant flashes of Cliff’s life pre-The Chief, only to really come to a head during the episode in which Cliff’s brain comes under attack from an errant rat that had made a home in his rusting chassis (don’t ask).

Diane Guerrero and Riley Shanahan as Crazy Jane and Cliff Steele in Doom Patrol (S01E04 ”Cult Patrol”) / Source: HBO Max

From then on, we are shown the real Cliff Steele. A man who constantly put himself before his wife and daughter. All for the sake of some ill attainable glory he “needed” to grasp. Not for the betterment of his family, like he claims, but for a long-abandoned approval he needs from his HIS OWN father.

It all culminates in the gristly accident that seemingly takes his wife and daughter and lands his brain-meat into the Robotman in the first place. An accident the show also goes a step further to be intimately clear is Cliff’s fault, placing him directly center again for his family’s trials and heartaches. The direct opposite of his stated goals.

Fortunately, his daughter survives, and Cliff is allowed a second chance to make something good with her with the help of his surrogate Doom Patrol daughter, Crazy Jane, by way of teleporting personality Flit, and arguably the team’s “mom” Rita Farr.

She’s grown into a saddened but sturdy bar owner, plagued by a giant alligator that occasionally eats her customers (again, it would be better not to ask). Cliff is able now to finally step up in a tactile way for her, albeit with her little knowing that it’s actually her dad that will slay the beast and retrieve the errant family heirloom it had eaten along with a local yokel. It’s a…truly weird sequence, but one true to the show’s zany emotionality and Cliff’s growth during this adaptation.

In the wake of his “loss”, Cliff finally realized what we all had before then. That your responsibility doesn’t just start and stop at being a “provider” and that your personal investment in your children is more than just a nebulous “responsibility”. That you actually have to LIVE like you have something to live for. More often than not, it doesn’t take dying and getting put into a robot suit to get there, but Cliff gets there all the same. And continues to try and live up to that with each passing episode. Taking threads that were started even in the first Titans’ guest appearance of the Doomies and running with them now even into its current season.

Riley Shanahan and Sydney Kowalske as Cliff Steele and Clara Steele in Doom Patrol (S01E01 ”Pilot”) / Source: HBO Max

There have been obstacles along the way, for sure. A stint in the gulag of the Bureau of Normalcy, a heavy falling out with Jane, miniaturization at the hands of Mr. Nobody in the bowels of an interdimensional donkey (again, just…don’t ask. Just watch). But all the while, Cliff had continued to “do the work”, as it were, taking text from the writers and spreading it across a truly striking and heartfelt adaptation of one of DC’s most irascible leading bots. He lost one family once, but he isn’t about to do it again. If he has to fight a million rats gnawing on his brain to do so, he will. Because that’s what “fathers” are supposed to do.

Now, I fully realize that this is a…pretty specific read on Cliff and the TV Doom Patrol. But it’s one that, for me, has added a whole new emotional dimension to one of my favorite shows and comics. By framing Cliff as the former deadbeat dad looking to make good, not only does it humanize one of the most inhuman members of the Doomies, it also allows so much more breadth of performance. On the page AND screen.

In summation, Cliff had all the plans, but his actions kept his and his family’s futures from being sealed. They made their own futures beyond the cage of British steel. We can do it too. We just have to be present for them. It’s part of the cycle for you and your children. As long as you do the work.